Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Review: "The Hobbit - The Desolation of Smaug"

JACKSON, Peter (Dir.), “The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug” New Line Cinema/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Wingnut Films, 2013.

By way of kicking off this review, I’m going to repeat a point I made last year: there’s a pronunciation guide that accompanies Tolkien’s epic saga and it tells any reader who cares to wander into the Appendices, how to say those funny Elvish, Dwarven, whatever, words. You might choose to look it up yourself – given that Peter Jackson et.al. obviously chose not to – or you might opt to experience the polyglot miscellany of the movie’s dialogue on its own merit. For the present exercise, I will write all of the names that I have to discuss phonetically, and let you, the reader, gauge how far off the mark the script, direction and dialogue coaching is, in these movies.

First off, this series has a distinct odour to it. You know the reek that contaminates those Disney film sequels that show up a couple of years after the original animated treat hits the cinemas? “Aladdin’s Winter Holiday Adventure”; “Mulan II: Mulan versus the Golden Horde”; “The Little Mermaid: Ariel and Ursula’s Tap Dance Face-Off”: they look like the real deal but there’s something off about them. Perhaps some of the original voice talent couldn’t return for the sequel; maybe it’s because one of Disney’s second-string animation studios has pushed it through to deadline. “The Hobbit”? Like that.

It’s not just the patchy dialogue that adds to this either. There are little giveaways all through the piece. In the compositing, eyelines are often shaky: in Laketown when Bard and T-Horin (see what I did there?) square off, neither of them seems to be actually staring the other in the eye; and the scenes in BEE-orn’s house were a jumble of big and little objects and creatures that didn’t seem to fit any perspective at all. It seems that the visual trickery crew at Weta Workshop have become somewhat lackadaisical in their approach and have taken a ‘she’ll be right’ view of these matters.

The make-up is a little iffy too. I’ve never liked the ‘hobbit-feet’ thing, but throughout “Lord Of The Rings”, we only have to endure them a handful (heh) of times in close-up. With the dwarves, the actors are forcing their skills through drenching layers of latex and fake hair to begin with; but was there really any point in forcing them to wear prosthetic hands as well? There’s a bit where T-Horin is scrabbling at the secret door, looking for the keyhole, and his bulky plastic hands are 1) lumpen and awkward, and 2) obviously made of rubber; at another point, Lego-lass and Tauriel (I’ll get to this name in a minute) are making dialogue and you can clearly see the loose edge of her rubber ear as she turns her head for a second. These are things that absolutely would not have happened in the “LOTR”.

Plot and pacing suffer from this ‘she’ll be right’ attitude too. There’s a case for foreshadowing in these works: the journey to the Lonely Mountain and the encounter with SmOWg is a prelude to Froh-doh’s holiday at Mount Doom. This is a classic literary motif which hearkens back to the Bible. In “The Hobbit”, much of the plot is simply filler material designed to throw impact onto events in the later “LOTR” films, which would be fine if the “The Hobbit” was made before those three movies. In the first “Hobbit” we got the three trolls, Gandalf’s moth trick and the Eagle Boys Pizza Delivery Service; the second “Hobbit” layers it on again: here’s rain-drenched Bree, complete with Peter Jackson stumbling through the night, violently decapitating carrots; here’s the Prancing Pony with menace lurking in the shadows; there’s a fight with a giant spider; here we are encountering feisty elves in an extravagant forest; here’s one of our diminutive heroes struck down by a morg-ool-weapon and healed by a she-elf with a bunch of King’s Foil; here’s the corrupt city ruler misled by the weaselly advisor. See? It’s easy: this stuff writes itself.

(What’s the opposite of foreshadowing I wonder? Anticlimax? Tedium?)

The pacing gives things away too. The despair of the dwarves at the secret door – having missed the last light of Durin’s Day – flicks on and off again like someone’s working a switch. It’s as if the scriptwriters looked over their day’s effort and said ‘we need a bit of teary-eyed, dramatic dialogue here’ and just patched it in. These moments in “LOTR” are never contrived and are genuinely moving; here, they come off half-cocked. I suspect it’s Jackson’s inflexible notion that ‘dwarves’ equal ‘funny’, so he refuses to give them any gravitas whatsoever. For him it’s a cast made up of Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, Gummo, Larry, Curley, Moe, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields: you don’t waste the love scenes or the stirring monologues on these guys. Although when these types of scenes do fall into their laps, there’s a feeling that it’s only being grudgingly offered. The fact that they’re all dressed like extras from a live-action Asterix movie doesn’t help either (for Christ’s sake, why can’t they just yank that stupid axe-head out of BIFF-er’s head?!)

(Seriously: have they actually read The Hobbit? T-Horin Oakenshield is at least the equal in majesty of THAY-oden; GLOH-in is supposed to be a wise elder, not a cunning street pedlar (despite their cover story of travelling merchants, which is supposed to be a ruse that everyone they meet sees straight through). Bomb-Ber is supposed to be the spiritual core of the group, not a spinning-barrel-of-destruction, target for cheap fat jokes. In the book, these guys drip majesty; you can smell the lineage and heroism coming off them; in the movie, it’s all nyuck, nyuck, nyuck! Whoops! [Fart!])

The opening scene is a pacing issue too; or a case where the editor dropped the ball, however you want to read it. It’s a flashback to Bree, a year before the meeting at Bilbo’s house, wherein Gandalf meets T-Horin at the sign of the Prancing Pony. There’s menace in the shadows, a cameo by Jackson, some off-kilter eyelines (foreshadowing as hard as we can here!): Gandalf says ‘dude, I’ve been telling you for ages to shoo that dragon out of your Scrooge McDuck money bin. Why don’t you man up and get it done?’ To which Master Oakenshield says, ‘alright’. Then we cut to Bilbo in close up with the words “Twelve Months Later” across the bottom of the screen in some bog-standard, non-Middle-Earth-y font that just screams ‘we couldn’t be bothered’. What is this scene doing? What purpose does it serve? Not much to my mind, except that it begins the erosion of Gandalf’s trustworthiness:

One thing we learn from this movie is that Gandalf is not great at commitment: ‘Dudes’, he says, ‘I’m comin’ with you guys to the ‘Mountain, dudes!’; then it’s, ‘Crazy elf forest ahead, dudes! But I just remembered I’ve got this really important - thing - I have to go get done, but you’ll be cool, right? I’ll see you later on at the Overlook, fo’shizzle!’. And then he pulls a no-show. Sure it’s because he ditched Radagast (and who wouldn’t ditch the bunny-rider with bird-shit in his hair – not cool dude) and went mano a mano with the Witch King, but it’s just impolite to make a date and not show up. Where are your birdy friends now, G-man? Tardiness in wizards was almost excusable in “LOTR”; “The Hobbit” demonstrates that it’s a chronic fault.

And yes, I know it happens in the book, but there, it’s handled differently. The way Jackson et.al. work it, it’s highlighted, made more obvious; it comes off as a character flaw, not a mysterious sub-text as Tolkien wanted it.

The connective tissue between all this re-working of the “LOTR” material (aka., ‘foreshadowing’) is more of the goofy, fighting free-for-all that dominated the first film (and which demonstrates the fact that Jackson hasn’t quite gotten over his brush with “Tintin”). This time we get the Elvish version, as well as all the gravity-defying Dwarven high-jinks, with Lego-lass along for the ride. Orlando Bloom’s stony-faced portrayal of wood-elf virtuosity makes all his character’s flash moves seem a bit ho-hum, like it’s just another day at the office (and maybe it is); he also seems much chunkier than the “LOTR” Lego-lass too, which was a little distracting. In fact, the guy who plays Bard in the film, looks more like Lego-lass than Lego-lass does. Weird.

The fighting brings up another point: Jackson wanted this movie to be seen in 3-D with a high frame-rate. This was obviously his vision for the film. If you don’t go to see this flick in a cinema that offers these options, you will be Punished. Big time. In two dimensions, things flash across the screen too fast to recognise, and things roar out of the background too fast to follow. You don’t see half of the dwarven pratfalls (thank God!) and you miss all the Elven slick moves. So if you do go and see it in ‘normal mode’, use the fight scenes to kick back, maybe visit the loo, ruffle your popcorn a bit and await the next piece of ‘foreshadowing’.

Of the few things I liked about the first “Hobbit”, the second film starts to erode them also. The orcs were very cool, despite being on ‘bad-ass overdrive’ in comparison to the good guys; now they’re being ramped up even more. The second-in-command orc (“Bolg”) seems to have metal plates inserted into his body between his ribs: I’m no doctor, but that kind of affectation screams ‘tetanus’, and ‘septicaemia’, to me. Rather than increase the opposition’s offensiveness (in all senses) between instalments, they should have just built them to a certain level and left it at that. If World War Two had been a fashion show, the Nazis would have won hands down; in this story, the orcs are definitely ahead on points, but they’re starting to push it just a little (spiked collars are so last week).

What else? Did you know that ‘Tauriel’ is a cabbalistic angel of the Zodiac? I applaud the inclusion of another female character in the cast and the way that they accomplish this is a great way to facilitate things. But there are those pesky Appendices in Tolkien’s books (not to mention university-accredited academics who can speak the Elven tongue fluently) who might have provided a name more in keeping with Tolkien’s vision. Seriously, in this day and age, did they think nobody would notice? I’m not sure about the romantic sub-plot they’re developing with her and Kee-lee (seriously, I’m seeing the dwarf/elf equivalent of ligers in their future) and the healing scene had most of the audience at the session I was in, tittering inappropriately; but I’m happy to wait and watch (despite knowing what’s coming!).

Last year, I said that “An Unexpected Journey” seemed like a bunch of reiteration that was intended to set up the pay-off to come; after “The Desolation of SmOWg”, I feel as though I’ve just watched a low-budget, Readers’ Digest re-telling of “The Lord of the Rings” (now with MORE dwarven humour! Nyuck, nyuck!). Possibly, my experience would have been better if I’d shelled out the big end of fifty bucks to see it in Hyper-Dimensional, Smell-O-Ramic, Sensurround-O-Vision™, but I suspect not.

If you go down to the woods today, you’ll find it’s same-old, same-old in Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth.

Two tentacled horrors.

PS: Don’t go see this film if you’re a Tolkien tragic, or a “LOTR” fan desperate for a fix (you know who you are): go and see it for Martin Freeman, who is fantastic. (Go, Watson!)

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Review: Culbard's "The Shadow Out of Time"

LOVECRAFT, H.P., & I.N.J. CULBARD, “The Shadow Out Of Time”, SelfMadeHero, London, 2013.
Octavo-sized duodecimo; perfect-bound in gatefold illustrated wrappers; unpaginated (120pp.), with many illustrations. Very good.

I came across this quite by accident in the local new book store in Leura. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular – just checking the new releases so that I could seem to talk intelligently with the customers in the shop where I work – but once I spotted it I knew that it would be coming home with me.

Essentially, this is a graphic novelisation of Lovecraft’s novella, stretching from dream-haunted Arkham to the land Down Under. The comics format is especially good for telling such tales of the weird and fantastic, because – fundamentally – it is not limited by annoying factors such as a budget. The recently-aborted attempt by Guillermo del Toro to film “At The Mountains Of Madness” demonstrates exactly why filmic interpretations are so often destined to fail, either never leaving the drawing board, or dying due to woeful execution. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve said often enough in the past that sometimes economic constraints serve to create ingenious work-arounds, as in the case of the HPLHS’s “Call of Cthulhu”; but the graphic novel approach shifts the whole exercise onto a different playing field, unlimited by such restrictions.

The really BIG Lovecraft works – “Mountains”, “Shadow over Innsmouth” “Haunter of the Dark” – require a Peter Jackson-like approach to film: there’re so many essential notes that have to be struck, before even thinking about adding anything extra, that your resources are used up right from the start. Smaller works such as “Cool Air”, “From Beyond”, even “Whisperer”, require fewer fundamental elements, most of which are available to hand, that there is scope to polish and embellish around the edges of what are – in essence – simple tales. (For my money, as a fan of del Toro’s “Cronos”, I think he’d do a wonderful job of “Cool Air”.)

Graphic novels overcome the need to search for exotic locales, or rare and expensive equipment and set pieces, with the stroke of a pencil. Need huge cyclopean ruins? Done. Want soul-shattering expanses of outer space? Done. It’s that easy.

Of course, like any transliteration from one medium to another, the material has to be massaged to fit the new format. In the present case, most of the descriptive passages of the original text can be done away with – the illustrations step in and fill that objective. What’s left are the pacing and the delineations of character. In the present instance, this is a commanding performance: action and reaction flow seamlessly across the narrative, encapsulating the thoughts and emotions of all the players.

The other chore that the interpreter of such material has to address, is hitting all of the beats. If something is left out, there’s a world of fans out there that will definitely wail and moan about it. Again, the graphic format can subsume a lot of this effort and the author/illustrator on this work has done an excellent job. After these things have been accomplished, all that remains is for the creator to embellish and place emphasis. For the first time here, we start to run into some issues.

In the original story, the narrative moves inevitably to a specific conclusion; that is, the thing that Dr Peaslee finds buried in the sands of Australia’s western deserts. Reading HPL’s tale, it’s easy to see that this event, and what it entails for the protagonist, are his motivations for writing the narrative, indeed for putting pen to paper: this is the gimmick; the trick of the story, if you will. Culbard moves the focus away from this; it still happens – and takes place in the narrative stream where it is supposed to – but its impact is greatly watered down. Perhaps, after such a long period of time since the first publication of the story, Culbard felt that this revelation was too pat for today’s sophisticated reading audience; he’s not the first writer to have altered an original tale for such reasons, as any number of recent adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple stories will demonstrate.

To my mind, this is a weakness. If the story is worth re-telling, then the intentions of the original author should be preserved. Without these, it becomes a different story with different goals. I don’t mind if a later adaptation places emphasis on unexplored themes which are already extant in the material, that’s fine: that’s merely embellishment, not a re-working.

In this case, Culbard places emphasis on the relationship between Peaslee senior and his son Wingate. We see the disintegration of the Peaslee domestic arrangement, and the further family disharmony which forces the younger academic from the home of his mother and her new husband. This certainly does not paint the former Mrs Peaslee in the light of an ideal parent, but it does add a layer of complexity to the narrative which does nothing to detract from it. Unfortunately, this theme of single fathers and their relationships with their offspring becomes the point of the story for Culbard and, sadly, deflects the hammer-blow of HPL’s final, dreadful revelation. The horror lies in what the Great Race is doing; not the incidental damage that they accrue to the families of individual people whose lives they affect. The ramifications of the Yithians’ time-hopping are profound, across the whole of humanity, and shouldn’t be equated with the effects of, say, a fatal car crash on one family unit. It may be that Culbard was reaching for a way to make the cosmic horror more personal and identifiable; if that’s the case, I don’t think it entirely worked.

There are other things which Culbard slips in which are cute and very entertaining. In one scene, the Yithian Peaslee and his guide perform a ‘drive by’ past the snoozing Cthulhu: Peaslee asks why the Great Race didn’t occupy this titanic creature? The guide dismisses the notion by saying sniffily that “it does nothing but sleep”. Other references to Mythos lore pop up here and there – the Mi Go; the Elder Things – and these work well within the context of the story, laying a backdrop, or timeline, of Mythos encroachment upon the Earth.

My final comments are to do with the artwork. For the most part, this is workman-like stuff, adequately fulfilling its purpose. Culbard has obvious fun with various cosmic horrors and manages to break the mould a little in places: his Yithians are entirely unique and add a benign pathos to what are essentially unknowable monsters. I was less interested in his Flying Polyps which seemed a little sketchy and lacking menace. At its best, the art is great at conveying the scope of the environments and the pace of the action; at worst, it can seem somewhat flat.

That being said, the whole project manages to capture the essence and spirit of HPL’s work (despite the tinkering mentioned above): there is serious skill involved in adapting something like this and doing it so seamlessly. Culbard has also penned versions of “The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “At The Mountains Of Madness” (for which he received the British Fantasy Award in 2011); I’d be keen to check out either of these on the strength of this offering.

Three-and-a-half Tentacled Horrors from me.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Review: Beyond Black

Mantel, Hilary, Beyond Black, Harper Perennial / HarperCollinsPublishers, London, 2005.

Octavo; paperback, with illustrated wrappers; 451pp. Somewhat cocked; text block and page edges lightly toned; minor wear to covers. Very good.

“There are nights when you don’t want to do it, but you have to do it anyway. Nights when you look down from the stage and see closed stupid faces. Messages from the dead arrive at random. You don’t want them and you can’t send them back. The dead won’t be coaxed and they won’t be coerced. But the public has paid its money and it wants results.”

Before the Booker Prizes, before the quotes taken out of context, before overnight world-wide instant acclaim, Hilary Mantel wrote a bunch of other books. Most importantly for me, and any similarly-minded readers out there, she wrote this book РBeyond Black Рa two-fisted, nitrous-fuelled, headrush into the Unknown, Beyond the Veil. This is a book for cover-judgers: what you see is what you get. This book goes Рblasts Рinto some dark, dark places; it has plenty of humour along the way, teamed up with some withering expos̩s of the human condition, but the subject matter and the humour is as black as it gets Рbeyond black.

The story revolves around two partners in the psychic business: Alison, or Al, who comes from impoverished roots and who has spoken with ghosts ever since she can remember, and lost, directionless Colette, a ruthlessly efficient business-woman newly cut loose from her dead-end marriage and her dead-head husband. In seeking purpose and answers for why her relationship crashed so badly, Colette encounters Al and Al proposes that she becomes her personal assistant and business partner. Colette reluctantly agrees; not because she has reservations about the supernatural, but because she needs to work: one of her previous prognosticators told her that she would find true love by charting a new direction and cutting loose from old ways, and by meeting a man at her new job.

The two women cannot be more dissimilar: Al is hugely obese, a mountain of soft flesh, while Colette is small, slim and angular – all hard lines and jutting bones. Colette is very direct, believing that all questions have simple, straightforward answers; Al’s world is nebulous and inexplicable: nothing is what it seems and she usually doesn’t have the vocabulary to explain to Colette what is happening. And then, to make things messy, there’s Morris.

Morris is Al’s spirit guide. No-one but Al can see him, but he makes his presence known to all. Morris is dead; an ex-jockey, drunkard, foul-mouthed, lecherous pervert, who – to Al’s great misfortune – was a mate of all the low-life lawless workmen for whom Al’s mum, Emmie, was the ‘town bike’. At the age of eight, one of Emmie’s regulars – “Keef” – brought his fighting dogs to the house and one of them tried to kill Al: since then she has scars and a peculiar affinity for spectral dogs and their mournful sense of loss - finding themselves without their owners in the land of the dead - or still suffering the pain and bewilderment of mistreatment at the hands of brutal owners. Morris, who acts as a conduit for Al, bringing the dead to talk through her to their surviving family members, has the nasty habit of bringing Al’s mum’s dead lovers to stay with him, forcing Al to keep moving to new houses, free of spectral taint, shaking off the unwanted unliving.

Colette, as well as organising and re-vivifying Al’s accounts, marketing and methods of client management, also decides that Al should produce a book. Consequently, they embark upon some recorded sessions wherein Colette interviews Al about her past and her working methods. Chunks of the book are transcripts of these sessions and there are some brilliant moments of golden dialogue. These trips down memory lane throw Al into long periods of self-examination: her childhood, filled as it was with the most horrible mental, emotional and physical abuse, has been mercifully blanked by her psyche and she remembers most of it as simply an unpleasant haze. Unfortunately, Colette’s questioning and Morriss’s unwelcome visitors start to open some messy worm-cans.

Mantel masterfully orchestrates the mechanics of talking to the dead and the activities of those who facilitate the process. She has a needle tapped straight into the veins of those who seek out psychic practitioners for comfort of solace: she mercilessly portrays their obsessive, compulsive self-abuse and wallowing. As well, she conjures a gallery of psychic operators – tarot card readers, palmists, druids, tasseomancers – who are as cynical and money-focussed as any suit-wearing operator from London’s Golden Mile. However – and here’s where Mantel’s brilliance shows through at its best – we meet all of these people through Al, whose generosity of spirit and need to remain “professional” and cater for everyone’s needs, never allows them to become truly the monsters they could be.

Al tells us that the dead are petty, self-obsessed and have hang-ups about the most ridiculous things – one spirit insists that Al pass on a message about the location of a missing cardigan button; another repeatedly tells her that she’s been looking for her best friend for over thirty years; Morris spends most of his time with his dick out. This is the reason, she tells Colette after some persistent questioning, why they don’t bother explaining what Heaven and Hell and God are like. Sometimes Al explains, the dead aren’t forthcoming at all; then she has to fall back on her telepathy to impress her clients. Colette becomes more confused and tries to spot the difference between ‘Al being a medium’ and ‘Al being telepathic’, to no real effect.

The matter-of-fact treatment of the supernatural here is what makes the whole package work. The psychics all compete for new innovations that will allow them to corner the market – Vedic palmistry versus Traditional; Vastu instead of Feng Shui – but their squabbling for buzz-words is merely the gloss on top of the given that is the communication with those “passed over”. At one “psychic fayre” on the weekend of Princess Diana’s funeral, they warily circle each other each trying to be the first to receive a communication from HRH, but trying not to make it look opportunistic. Ironically, Al is the only one who does get an audience, but it happens in her hotel room where no-one except Colette (who doesn’t understand what’s happening) is there to see it.
Ultimately, what drives Al (with Colette, stumbling briskly in her wake) is the knowledge of What Comes Next, and her desperate fear to avoid it, just as she tried to avoid the casual, brutal realities of her childhood. In essence, Al becomes a dweller on the hinterlands, neither here nor there, pacifying the living and trying to keep the dead under control. As you read on, your realisation of the subtleties (and grotesqueries) of her position become terrifying clear.

It’s not only the source material that makes this a great read; it’s also the consummate writing that it showcases. Mantel has a gimlet eye and pins down the bleak urban landscapes which our two heroines tear through with uncanny and beautiful accuracy. Try this:

“A sea-green sky: lamps blossoming white. This is marginal land: fields of strung wire, of treadless tyres in ditches, fridges dead on their backs, and starving ponies cropping the mud. It is a landscape running with outcasts and escapees, with Afghans, Turks and Kurds: with scapegoats, scarred with bottle and burn marks, limping from the cities with broken ribs. The life forms here are rejects, or anomalies: the cats tipped from speeding cars, and the Heathrow sheep, their fleece clotted with the stench of aviation fuel.”

In a world where so much of what gets published is just bad writing that should never have made it to the page, this is a breath of fresh air. Or rather, a great, gulping, lung-filling sense of relief that there is a master at work out there in the field.

And of course, this gets the full five Tentacled Horrors from me, along with a stern injunction to find it and read it!

Friday, 25 October 2013

Review: The Ghost of 29 Megacycles

Fuller, John G., The Ghost of 29 Megacycles, Souvenir Press Ltd., London, 1985.

Octavo; hardcover, with silver-gilt spine-titling; 257pp. Near fine in like dustwrapper, now protected by archival–quality non-adhesive plastic film.

I’m only halfway through this at the moment but I’ve already got up such a head of steam that I need to de-pressurise a bit before I go on. This is a book about technology being used to determine if there are ghosts out there; about science going head-to-head with “things beyond the veil”, and I had high hopes of a satisfying conclusion.

It’s not that I have a superstitious mind, or that I believe prima facie in the supernatural: when I was a kid, like a lot of kids, I wanted magic and spooks and monsters to be real. Too often I found that exploring the world for the supernatural led to pat answers about how “magical” the world is, if you look at it in just the right way; that is, if you use your imagination and play nicely. Not satisfying. I was reading about actual monsters - werewolves being hunted through the villages of 16th Century France; the Amityville Horror; UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle: I didn’t want someone at the end of the show saying “how much fun was that? See what we can do if we all play the same imaginary games?” Going through all of the cut-and-thrust, only to be told what a great, fictional story it all is, was the ultimate cop-out to my 8-year-old way of thinking.

This attitude remains with me today. I don’t mind following through on an investigation only to find out that some phenomenon is the result of creaky floorboards, glowing marsh gas and a few over-active imaginations; I don’t mind the Scooby-Doo ending if it’s reached intelligently and logically; however, I REALLY dislike being dragged through a narrative, hooked along by someone else’s poor assumptions.

This I think is one of the reasons I like Charles Fort (what he stood for anyway; not his writing style). His basic premise is that too often, in any field of human endeavour, people become blinkered by their assumptions about what ought to be happening and refuse to look at what’s actually going on. His main target was the scientific community which, having structured itself in such a way as to discount anything which doesn’t fall within its consensus-backed, peer-reviewed parameters, refuses to even look at anything anomalous. To this end he wrote (turgid, poorly-expressed, incendiary, convoluted) lists of anything that was out of the ordinary, so that it stood on record until such a time that science advanced far enough to be able to understand what had been going on. Fort didn’t have any answers; what he did have was a bee in his bonnet about people who refused to lift their heads up and look around.

The thing that really griped Fort’s cookies was that the scientific community claimed to have all of the answers. It annoyed him that Science, when confronted with the Unknown, often declared in a patronising manner “there has to be a rational explanation”, without then going on to provide one. Discount and move on: this seemed to him to be Science’s standard operating procedure. There are echoes of Fort’s annoyance in every episode of the X-Files, where Government deniability swoops in to conceal, appropriate and cover-up anything that seems strange and unusual. Fox Mulder: the modern-day Charles Fort.

So, I thought this book would be something a little refreshing: the scientific community setting out seriously to discover the nature of Life After Death.

The story is as follows: a well-known industrial engineer named Meeks, a staunch member of the scientific community, approaches our author to ask him to write an unbiased, impartial record of his discoveries in finding a method to communicate with the Dead. This scientist claims to have found a way to get ghosts to communicate with the living through an extension of principles outlined as EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena), working with the spirits of dead scientists to refine the process. It sounded pretty whacky to me (as it would to anyone really) but I decided to take the ride and see where it took me.

The book started off with many authorial assertions from Fuller that he was unwilling to take on the task, that he found the whole thing too preposterous. This was followed by claims to have researched all of the people involved, to see if they were members of the lunatic fringe (and thus to be avoided). Then we had the face-to-face meeting where we were told that everyone present was “normal” and earnest, in no way fruity or demonstrably unhinged. Meeks and his wife meet Fuller and his wife and they discuss the project over tea: Meeks is calm of aspect, steadfast in his beliefs, engaging in manner. The wives are supportive and engaged on both sides of the equation, and we get some homey exchanges of dialogue between Fuller and his missus about what the project entails and where it’s going.

It took less than this much to make my “baloney senses” start tingling.

Arguably, it’s my Gen-X attitudes showing, but when anyone tries this hard to convince me that everything’s OK, I automatically start picking at the cracks. The book to this point followed a well-trod path of deflecting suspicion and reservation: I was being asked not to harbour a feeling that anything other than what I was being told was going on. Strike one: I don’t like being told what to think, and I can see a soft-soap job coming a mile off.

We next had chapters of background, both of Meeks and Fuller, specifically, his past books which rang like self-promotion and advertising. To be frank, it was boring and I kept wanting him get to the punchline. Eventually, we started to hear about Meeks’s initial experiments wherein a cabal of technicians gathered regularly in a rented room with some hard-core audio and other electronic equipment to download information from the Afterlife, in the company of a medium.

What? A medium?

Here’s where the fantasy unravels: we’re told that our scientific researchers are wary of accepting the evidence of spirits from The Other Side, but that the main tentpole of their investigation is a crystal-ball-gazing, tarot-card-shuffling medium. Sorry: given that the presence of the one automatically assumes the fact of the other, as far as scientific method goes this is shooting itself in the foot from the get-go.

Further assertions of serious attitude follow: we’re told that the experiments begin with an earnest prayer; that the medium is not some gypsy-descended fruitcake, but is a reluctant acknowledger of the “gifts” they have been imbued with. Really? Seriously, they could be prayers to Satan at the start of a Black Mass for all I care, it just says that there’s all kinds of bias going on here, not just the taking for granted that dead people live on after “moving on”.

But wait: there’s more. Meeks tells us that, after many sessions tweaking an oscilloscope and twitching a metaphorical cat’s whisker, he has discovered that people “over there” live a life of pure thought and spiritual development; some people arrive less-than-perfectly adapted and must be schooled in ascending to higher grades of spiritual excellence. “Life” is spent enjoying the prospect of mental and spiritual attunement, passing on to higher states of phantasmagorical excellence. And there are scientists over there working night and day to find ways of communicating with their loved ones.

Come On! Seriously? Despite the fact that it all sounds mind-bogglingly tedious, has anyone else noticed that all of this material is being made available by one single individual whose “abilities” are assumed, cannot be measured or quantified, and are probably pure hogwash? Well, Meeks and his cabal of serious-minded researchers certainly have no problems with this, and Fuller is keen to make sure that we readers don’t either.

(Insert here the sound of a book flying across the room to bounce off a wall.)

This is no journalistic effort: it’s crap. Fuller’s assumptions – which he may have been sold on by Meeks – are creaky and don’t hold up to any reasonable examination. The premise that mediums exist, that psychic energies swirl around us and can be manipulated by schooled, talented individuals, is not a given, so any “research” which takes off from this premise is necessarily flawed and untenable. Let’s not even mention that a lead chapter outlining the author’s other literary efforts reeks of self-promotion and warns that this entire effort is likely to be an exercise in unit-shifting rather than revelation. Oh, did I just mention that? My bad.

I feel, like Fort, that I shouldn’t be judgemental and that I should keep an open mind about the assertions here. However, I’m not an idiot: the world has rules and it has a lot of snake-oil salesmen. I’m prepared to be astonished by new discoveries, not to be made to swallow a line.

Forty years on, there are still no monsters, ghosts or UFOs; sadly, there are still a lot of bullshit shovelers.

No Tentacled Horrors for this con-job.



Established: 1819

“‘If I had a conscience,’ Doctor Percival said, ‘I would not remain a member here. I’m a member because the food is the best in London’
‘I like the food at the Travellers’ just as much,’ Hargreaves said.”
-Grahame Greene, The Human Factor

1819-1822: 12 Waterloo Place
1822-1832: 70 Pall Mall, SW1
1832-Present: 106 Pall Mall, SW1

Entry Restrictions
Men only, on the proviso that they have “travelled out of the British islands to a distance of at least five hundred miles from London in a direct line”; a stipulation of membership is that all nominated candidates must name at least four foreign countries which they have personally visited.

Famous Members
Prince Talleyrand (1754-1838)
Lord Castlereagh (1769-1822)
Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington (1769-1852)
George Canning (1770-1827)
Sir Francis Beaufort (1774-1857)
Earl of Aberdeen (1784-1860)
Viscount Palmerston (1784-1865)
C.R. Cockerell (1788-1863)
Sir William Parry (1790-1855)
Sir Roderick Murchison (1792-1871)
Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860)
FitzRoy of the “Beagle” (1805-1865)
Arthur Balfour (1848-1930)
Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947)
Sir Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003)

Skills Augmented:
Anthropology, Credit Rating, Other Language, History; Navigation

Areas of Speciality:
Diplomatic Relations; Foreign Affairs; Historical Matters; Travel Literature; Cartographic issues

Once peace had been restored in Europe, After the Napoleonic Wars, A group of English gentlemen – amongst them Lord Castlereagh – saw a need for an organisation which could use its experience of foreign countries and manners to facilitate new connexions with former enemies. The idea was that a Club of well-travelled individuals could provide hospitality to foreign travellers, which would then facilitate reciprocal relations overseas.

The Club was originally established at Waterloo Place, its ideals enshrined in its charter and the head of Ulysses chosen for its badge; however the premises there were soon deemed to be unfit. Charles Barry was commissioned to design and build a new headquarters and in the meantime, the Club relocated to 70 Pall Mall before taking up residence in the house which he built at 106. The building is redolent of overseas architectural influences, mainly Italianate, which spoke strongly of the Grand Tour, an essential part of any young man’s upbringing at the time. Barry received £1,500 and lifetime membership for his efforts.

Principal rooms in the Traveller’s Club include the Library – often cited as one of the most elegant venues in London – and the Map Room, home to many rare and important original travel documents, on the ground floor. The Bramall Room opens out onto the Carlton Gardens to allow pleasant meanderings in warmer weather.

The interior is lavishly decorated in mahogany and brass, designed also by Barry, with an ornate handrail up the main staircase, installed to allow the French Prince Talleyrand to access the upper levels in his later years. Amongst all this finery, there are also excellent examples of art, objets and decorations from across the globe.

“Treddleford sat in an easeful armchair in front of a slumberous fire, with a volume of verse in his hand and the comfortable consciousness that outside the club windows the rain was dripping and pattering with persistent purpose. A chill, wet October afternoon was emerging into a black, wet October evening, and the club smoking-room seemed warmer and cosier by contrast. It was an afternoon on which to be wafted away from one’s climatic surroundings, and The Golden Journey to Samarkand promised to bear Treddleford well and bravely into other lands and under other skies...”
-Saki, “A Defensive Diamond”

Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Drone's...

The Drone’s
Established: 1910

“We're pretty broad minded here, and if you stop short of smashing the piano, there isn't much you can do at the Drones that will cause the raised eyebrow and the sharp intake of breath"

-A Drone’s Member

Dover Street, Mayfair, W1

Entry Restrictions
Men only
Famous Members
Samuel Galahad “Sam” Bagshott
Charles Edward “Biffy” Biffen
Montague “Monty” Bodkin
Godfrey “Biscuit” Brent, Lord Biskerton
“Tubby” Bridgnorth
Frederick “Freddie” Bullivant
Hugo Carmody
G. d’Arcy “Stilton” Cheesewright
Marmaduke “Chuffy” Chuffnell
Nelson Cor
Dudley Finch
Augustus “Gussie” Fink-Nottle
Ronald Overbury “Ronnie” Fish
George “Boko” Fittleworth
Cyril “Barmy” Fotheringay-Phipps
Hildebrand “Tuppy” Glossop
Richard “Bingo” Little
Algernon “Algy” Martyn
Archibald “Archie” Mulliner
Horace Pendlebury-Davenport
Judson Phipps
Harold “Stinker” Pinker
Tipton Plimsoll
Claude Cattermole “Catsmeat” Potter Pirbright
Alexander “Oofy” Prosser
Rupert “Psmith” Smith
Adolphus “Stiffy” Stiffham
Reginald “Reggie” Tennyson
Frederick “Freddie” Threepwood
Reginald “Pongo” Twistleton
Hugo Walderwick
Frederick “Freddie” Widgeon
Percy Wimbolt
Harold “Ginger” Winship
Bertram “Bertie” Wooster
Algernon “Algy” Wymondham-Wymondham

Skills Augmented:
Bargain; Cricket; Fist/Punch; Sneak; Throw;
Areas of Speciality:
Country House Retreats; Cricket; Famous Cooks; Musical Theatre

Not all of London’s most famous Clubs are, in fact, real. Some of them exist only in the pages of famous writers who, themselves, drew upon their own memberships for inspiration. We’ve seen how Boodle’s provided Ian Fleming with the notion of M’s Club Blades, and other writers have developed their own establishments in a similar fashion. Most famous of all however, has to be the Drone’s Club, created by Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse.

The founding of the Drone’s Club is shrouded in the mists of time (circa 1910) and is rumoured to have been a charitable act, similar to those of foreign organisations which fund the return of ex-patriate gentlemen back to their homelands after their fortunes turn bad. Establishing a place where vapid and wastrel upper-class youth could be gathered together in one spot seems an act definitely tailored towards the Common Good.

The Drones is populated by young men of a class viciously referred to as “upper-class twits”. They have no particular political or ideological bent beyond indulging their fondness for high-jinks and the furthering of relationships formed whilst in school at Harrow, or Eton. As a group they instinctively shy away from anything bordering on the intellectual.

Uniting all members of the Drone’s is deeply-hued hatred of another Club called the Chanters. Members of that Club are all earnest, go-getting young men who pride themselves on being everything that the Drones are not. Regular inter-varsity activities take place between the two establishments and these contests are bitterly played out. These events are of the challenge variety and are usually instigated by a Chanter’s Club member heaving the gauntlet at the foot of a Drone’s Club adversary.

Events within the Drones Club include the following: The Drones Club Annual Golf Rally; The Drones Club Annual Darts Tournament (sweepstakes); and the Drones Club Annual Fat Uncle Contest (sweepstakes). The Golf Rally takes place along St. James’s Street: participants must carry a golf club and have their own ball; they tee off from the front steps of the Senior Club on Pall Mall and finish with a chip shot through the front door of the Berkeley Club in Piccadilly. Drinks are de rigueur. Very few Drone’s ever complete the course, what with the fleeing through shattered glass from angry Club members and the escaping from policemen. The Darts Tournament, being a sweepstakes event has little to do with the skill of the players, and the Fat Uncle Contest is likewise handicapped in the tactics department. (For the record, the Fat Uncle Contest involves surreptitiously discovering the weights of various nominated avuncular relatives.)

The Clubhouse has two smoking lounges, one large and one small; however for reasons unknown the small lounge is rarely used. The dining room is often raucous and filled with unbridled conversation, leading to the tradition of attracting the attention of a fellow member by throwing a bread roll at him. There is a gymnasium with a swimming pool, ropes and rings but its use is generally infrequent.

More important than the facilities are the personnel. The head barman, McGarry, has an encyclopaedic memory and mixes the Club members’ cocktails to perfection every time. The head porter Bates is a past master of diplomacy and defends the Club’s gates from unwanted intrusion and idiocy. And Robinson who works as a waiter in the cloakroom, is the voice of reason when it comes to organising and assigning hats, coats and various types of purloined impedimenta, including policemen’s helmets.


“Once a year the committee of the Drones decides that the old Club could do with a wash and brush-up, so they shoo us out, and dump us down for a few weeks at some other institution. This time we were roosting at the Senior Liberal, and, personally, I had found the strain pretty fearful. I mean, when you’ve got used to a Club where everything’s nice and cheery, and where, if you want to attract a fellow’s attention, you heave a bit of bread at him, it kind of damps you to come to a place where the youngest member is about eighty-seven, and it isn’t good form to talk to anyone unless you and he were through the Peninsular War together. It was a relief to come across Bingo. We started to talk in hushed voices. ‘This Club,’ I said, ‘is the limit.’

‘It is the eel’s eyebrows,’ agreed young Bingo. ‘I believe that old boy over by the window has been dead three days, but I don’t like to mention it to anyone...’”

- P.G. Wodehouse

“If you are so jolly sure that life is finally extinct, just try clearing away that glass and see what happens!”


Saturday, 19 October 2013


Established: 1764

“There was something peculiar about a Whig house and a certain similarity between them. The black and white marble hall; the painted ceiling; the Roman busts; the pictures which several generations of young noblemen had brought back from their European tours (then a necessary part of education); the fine library, and a certain air of distinction.”
-Harold Macmillan, The Past Masters

St. James’s Street, W1

Entry Restrictions
Men only; women are allowed as evening guests on special occasions

Famous Members
Charles James Fox (1749-1806)
William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806)
Robert Peel (1788-1850)
Lord Halifax (1881-1959)
Harold Macmillan (1894-1986)
Roy Jenkins (1920-2003)

Skills Augmented:
Accounting; Bargain; Credit Rating; Gambling; Law;

Areas of Speciality:
Liberal British Politics; Journalistic Policy; Business & Finance; Current Political Trends; Foreign Affairs; Backgammon

Brooks’s was first established at a private premises in Pall Mall, from a group of 27 gentlemen including four dukes. Its purpose was to provide a meeting place for those of Whig sensibilities, in direct opposition to those Tory members of Whites. The original meeting place was “farmed” or managed by Scots Club organiser William Macall, known more generally as William Almack, who passed management over to his lieutenant – a fellow named Brooks – who facilitated the move to the new location in St. James’s Street. Although Mr Brooks died only three years after the new premises was established, the name stuck.

The Club building was designed and built by architect Henry Holland and was finished in 1778; in aspect, it resembles a grand country house, with rooms for backgammon and an extensive library. It lies directly across the road from Boodle’s, and the two Tory Clubs – White’s and the Carlton Club – are just down the road. A smaller associated Club – the St. James – occupied the block next door; Brooks’s took over this establishment in 1978, amalgamating the two organisations under the Brooks’s title.

The original purpose of the Club was to provide a home away from home for gentlemen of Whiggish persuasion, to which they could retire whenever it suited them (and whenever domestic life became too unbearable). Gambling was a prevalent activity and outrageous amounts of money where reported to have changed hands there. Notably amongst the Clubs of London, Brooks’s instituted a tradition whereby the subscription fee for membership was deducted from the pay-out from a member’s gambling when they went to cash in their chips; it was considered unseemly to have to present a member with a bill for their membership dues.

Gambling was a somewhat alarming addiction at Brooks’s from the early days, with sessions of whist carrying on for consecutive days and nights at a time. The Whig politician Charles James Fox was known as a reckless and enthusiastic game-player and often bankrupted himself, relying upon his fellow members to bail him out of financial difficulties on several occasions. A certain Mr Thynne resigned in disgust from the Club for having won at cards only £12,000 in two months; the Club records note this event with the comment, “and that he may never return is the ardent wish of members”. Like White’s, Brooks’s has a betting book wherein the more unusual wagers are recorded for posterity; one bet from 1785 runs to the effect that "Ld. Cholmondeley [pronounced ‘Chumley’] has given two guineas to Ld. Derby, to receive 500 Gs whenever his lordship fucks a woman in a balloon one thousand yards from the Earth." The outcome from this wager is not appended.

From the start, Brooks’s aimed to provided substantial meals for its members and in this it succeeded very well. However, variety was not a spice that prevailed in the Club’s kitchens. Bored by the unending repetition of the bill of fare, members set up a protest which resulted in the creation of Watier’s, an on-site restaurant attached to the Club, in 1806.

A fire severely damaged the Great Subscription Room and the front morning room directly below it in the 1970s but this wasn’t the worst calamity to hit the place: in 1974, IRA terrorists threw a bomb into the outer dining room around 10 o’clock in the evening. The blast succeeded in wounding three waiters closing up after the day’s trade but missed the Home Secretary – a Club member – who, it seems, was the intended target of the attack.

Brooks’s has a long and distinguished membership and is acutely sensitive to the need for a tradition of family members. There are members who can trace their forebears back to seven or eight generations as members of the Club. With the amalgamation of the St. James’s Club in the 1970s, entry was opened to European dignitaries, literati and members of the diplomatic set, connexions which have strengthened and broadened the society of the Club. It remains to this day, one of London’s most exclusive gentlemen’s Clubs.

“That evening I was to dine with the Chancellor who had been saying to me for some days that he ‘had to talk to me alone, and would take me out to Brooks’s’. So we drove off in his great big Daimler, unloaded ourselves halfway up St. James’s Street and went into the Club. Upstairs is the gaming table with a slice cut out to give room for Charles James Fox’s tummy. At the bar down below were Mark Bonham-Carter and other willowy young men. It’s a classy Club, not at all like the Garrick, and after we’d had a drink we went into the dining room and had claret and gulls’ eggs and were gentlemen together.”

-The Crossman Diaries